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Latin American Arab Community Comes Under Close Watch - 2001-09-15

Authorities in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay say they have stepped up security along their common border area in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist acts in the United States. The area was under suspicion in the past as a possible haven for Middle East terrorists.

The focus of attention is on Ciudad del Este, a city along the Paraguayan border with Brazil and Argentina, which has a large Arab community.

Security along the common border has been increased as authorities carefully check the travel documents of those entering and leaving Ciudad del Este.

Paraguayan police say they also are investigating whether any community members are involved in suspicious activities. A spokesman for the Ciudad del Este police, Augusto Lima, says the information gathered is being shared with Brazilian and Argentine authorities.

The spokesman said the information also is being passed to agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The U.S. embassies in Brasilia and Asuncion have refused comment on any FBI activity in the region.

Suspicions about the Ciudad del Este community were first raised four years ago by Argentina, which was the scene of two bombings in the early 1990s, one against the Israeli embassy and the other against an Israeli-Argentine mutual assistance group.

Argentina's interior minister at the time, Carlos Corach, said there were indications terrorists belonging to Hezbollah were going to the Paraguayan city to stay at homes of relatives and to receive financing for their activities.

On Thursday, the Paraguayan government announced it has suspended granting visas to citizens from Arab nations. Paraguayan Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Moreno Ruffinelli said the action is directly related to Tuesday's attacks in the United States.

He also said the Paraguayan government will cooperate in any way it can with the search for those responsible for the terrorist acts.

In Brazil, Foreign Minister Celso Lafer told reporters that officials are increasing their vigilance along the border with Paraguay. But he added his government has no evidence of any terrorist network in the area.